I was visiting my parents in my home state of Idaho when John McCain announced his surprise selection for vice president – Alaska’s feisty governor, Sarah Palin. As the 44-year-old female politician was expertly delivering her national “maiden” speech in Dayton, Ohio – standing next to the beaming Arizona senator, where she remains to this day – the Northwest media were already noting with some pride that she was born in the beautiful Idaho panhandle town of Sandpoint. The growing lakeside town is just 40 miles north of where I grew up in Coeur d’Alene (forget your French; we pronounce it core-da-lane).

Minutes after she finished her stirring speech, regional television and radio stations were broadcasting the news that, while Palin had moved with her family to Alaska when just a toddler, she returned to Idaho in the spring of 1983 to study at North Idaho College, located in scenic Coeur d’Alene. The young woman then transferred to the University of Idaho in Moscow (80 miles south of my hometown) in the fall of 1984 where she majored in journalism, with an emphasis in broadcast news. After a brief college student stint in Alaska, she returned once more to Idaho where she graduated from the state’s top scholastic institution in 1987.

The revelation that the suddenly world famous Gov. Palin had roots in Idaho – the country’s 13th largest state land-wise, containing America’s second-largest designated wilderness area (after Alaska), but with just over 1.3 million residents – “set the locals abuzz,” as the nearby Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review newspaper headlined the next day. Indeed, her father, Chuck Heath, was raised in Hope, Idaho, just a few miles east of Sandpoint. So if his lucid daughter becomes the nation’s deputy leader next Jan. 20, Sarah Palin can accurately boast with Bill Clinton that she has some family connections to a small American town called Hope.

There was another reason why regional media outlets were particularly focused on Palin’s Idaho roots. If she and McCain triumph in the Nov. 4 election, the Alaska chief executive will be the very first Northwest-born politician to serve as either president or vice president. In fact, only one other regional native had even been placed on a national ticket by either party – Oregon Republican Charles McNary, who ran with Wendell Wilkie against the victorious Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. Of course, others have attempted to move into the White House, including Idaho’s former Democratic Sen. Frank Church and Washington’s Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

Besides the fact that both of us were born in Idaho, I felt several other personal connections to Palin as I listened to her speak and later studied her bio on the Internet. Like her, I was christened a Roman Catholic as a baby, but as a teenager chose to be baptized as a “born again” Christian. I also majored in broadcast journalism at a Northwest school (in Spokane). With diploma in hand, I similarly began working at a local media outlet (she as a sportscaster at an Anchorage television station, myself as a disc jockey and news writer at a Coeur d’Alene radio station, plus a TV cameraman at the local cable company). Unlike Palin, I continued working in the media field, moving in 1980 to Israel where I’ve worked for CBS and other news outlets.

There was another, more emotional connection that I quickly felt as the vivacious politician delivered her sizzling Dayton speech. She noted that her fifth child, Trig, only 4 months old, “has special needs” (Down syndrome), vowing to stand up for all Americans with mental or physical disabilities, which she repeated at the Republican convention. My mom informed me that Palin’s sister also has a handicapped child.

Our family was similarly comprised of five children, the youngest born with an especially small cranium that hindered her mental development. So naturally, Gov. Palin’s pledge touched my heart, as I’m sure it did many of the millions of Americans with parallel family situations. And it probably bought the McCain-Palin ticket some additional votes.

Sarah Palin’s contention that such children are “a blessing” rang fairly true with me, although I have to admit it has proved to be a mixed one in my family, and I’m sure many others as well. It’s hardly been easy for me or my three male siblings – not to mention our dedicated parents – to watch our sister struggle with frustration as she bravely attempts to figure out how to do simple things that are easy for most of us, like putting batteries into her portable music player with the ends matching the appropriate terminals.

Certainly no one would wish to have a mentally or physically handicapped child. But Sarah and Todd Palin’s choice not to abort the baby that they knew in advance would require extra care and attention was exemplary for sure.

Whether the East Coast political and media establishment, not to mention Barack Obama and Joe Biden, likes it or not (and most apparently do not), it is now abundantly clear that John McCain made a brilliant pick for his running mate. Although it might be too much to call her his “Viagra pill” as I heard one female commentator irreverently state this week on Fox News, Palin has certainly sparked an uptick in the polls for the veteran Republican candidate.

But will she help McCain win over enough votes to clinch the Oval Office?

Palin’s growing national popularity will hardly make a difference in Idaho, which always heavily votes Republican in presidential elections. Ditto for Utah and Wyoming. But the hunting and fishing hockey mom might have enough clout to assure that the neighboring Rocky Mountain state of Montana, and possibly Colorado, stay red this November.

I would not be terribly surprised if Oregon now also goes Republican, with some normally Democratic female voters – still upset that Hillary is not running in the autumn contest – along with independent male sportsmen (abundant as deer in the rugged Pacific Northwest) pulling the McCain-Palin chain. If this also proved true for neighboring Washington state – although far less likely given the leftist stronghold that is today’s urban Seattle – it might just be enough to put the former prisoner of war over the top, strongly assisted by a straight talking gal from the freedom loving mountainous states of Idaho and Alaska.

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